By Paul Kelly, Creative Director, Digital Ape, a Dubai-based digital campaign, content and marketing firm
Recently, the role of so-called “influencers”, whose vast audiences often extend across many social media platforms, has come into question primarily as a result of lack of oversight of the industry in general and the difficulty in defining ROI when working with them. We need answers to these questions sooner rather than later as we enter an age that appears to be controlled by content creators and their communities. It’s timely, then, that we take a look at the role influencers play.
We need to start first of all by defining exactly what an influencer is. For example, those that seem to pop up on social newsfeeds that have the world ‘influencer’ in their profile are, more often than not, people to avoid like the plague because: a) they are unlikely to have any actual quantifiable influence, and b) are often just looking for freebies instead of a building any form of relationship between themselves, a brand and their community. And that’s the key point here: community.
In our definition at Digital Ape, a true influencer is really a content creator and can be defined as anyone who creates original content for an audience they have built from the ground up, achieving significant reach and engagement from real people who wait for the content they create. Let’s also remind ourselves that often, their audiences far exceed that of any regional publication.
The question is – to what extent do these content creators exert influence?
Let’s talk about true influence
Since we began in 2009, we at Digital Ape have been working with content creators. Since 2012, we have been working with them at scale, but there was no hard and fast set of numbers that could accurately say just how important they have become in the media consumption area. Actually, what little work was done in the region wasn’t really looking at people’s actual opinions on why they follow content creators.
We decided to get a little deeper on the subject and commissioned a survey of 1,500 MENA-based women late last year, because we were interested in their content habits online, particularly in relation to food content. Even we were surprised by the results.
Content creators are trusted three times more by their communities than by brands;
Online content creators are as important as friends and family recommendations when it comes to purchasing decisions offline – the brands are half as likely to influence a decision themselves;
In Saudi, non-branded (e.g., content creator) channels on social media are more popular than family and friends, and double that of brands, in trust weighting;
WhatsApp is the most popular recipe sharing tool in the MENA region, with Snapchat becoming increasingly popular among people aged 35 to 44;
84 per cent of respondents don’t see any problem with a content creator featuring a brand in their content;
Facebook is for old people! At a factor of 50 per cent, it is more popular among 35- to 44-year-olds compared to the segments aged 18 to 24 and 35 to 34, with Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat far exceeding its popularity;
YouTube is the most popular place for GCC women to find inspirational ideas for cooking;
TV and radio are diminishing down the scale of importance in purchasing decisions by a factor of three compared to digital content channels, across all age groups.
It’s safe to say we’re in an age that’s defined by three factors:
Disparate consumption: Media is more fragmented than ever. While publishing houses lament the consolidation of titles and media sources, content creators, now more than ever, are making videos, images and words that millions upon millions rely on everyday. Where’s the right place to be? Well, that depends on a great definition of audience.
Fragmented audiences: Actually, no – they’re not fragmented, they’re just exclusively in more niche places now. While certain content creators hold cross-audience appeal, it’s a mix of specialities: let’s say fashion-trend content creators alongside people with broad appeal like Lily Singh, Casey Niestat or Felix Kjellberg (aka PewDiePie), who hold massive audiences. It’s not actually a case that an audience is hard to find, it’s just that you need to have your audience profile in mind first.
Creators know better: It’s worth thinking of creators as those publishers of yore that could advise on a slot, topic or programming to run an ad against. These creators have literally built audiences of millions and create content their audiences engage with everyday – they know how to build, and keep, an audience via personality. It’s worth recognising that the power has almost now shifted completely to the content creator.
We’re starting to see an age-old adland pattern emerge: working with content creators, and understanding their actual influence can only be defined with access to data, insights and an acute understanding of audience.
Creators are the new media
CNN recently bought YouTuber Casey Niestat’s production and app company, purely to help CNN become more relevant to Gen Z and millennials – after all, those millennials are switching off TVs in favour of Niestat-style programming on YouTube at an astonishing rate. This is giving some credence to the fact that ‘old media’ is now having to adapt to the new order of a decentralised, personality-driven entertainment landscape.
It’s therefore no surprise that co-creation is now a viable activity for brands: creators have access to similar – or the same – equipment as more traditional publishers and can create content of comparable quality. But is the modern agency in the Gulf equipped to deal with content creators? The short answer is no. It’s becoming a devolved skill to specialist agencies who are better at building relationships than traditional agencies whose business models are transaction-based. Content creator management is a critical skill; better relationships equal longer-term thinking and, usually, better value for budget.
The ‘R’ word
We’re not actually talking about ‘returns’ yet, either. It’s Regulation. In the UK, US and other countries with a stronger system of policing ads, posts by content creators who are sponsored need to be clearly marked as paid or an ad. We haven’t got there yet in the Gulf, but what we do have is the beginnings of a system emerging. Transparency in the regional space would be welcome. First, it would make the creator think, “Do I really want that badly designed dental clinic ad with pictures of rotten teeth on my otherwise perfectly curated timeline?” Consequently, it would force brands and content creators to develop better, and ultimately more meaningful, branded content.
The real R word – the most important one we use at Digital Ape, because it defines what success looks like, but many marketers don’t know where to start. It’s a roller coaster of everything from budget to payback, and there’s no clear link between the two.
That’s where working with people with the right experience helps, but here are some tips for measuring ROI:
Don’t measure reach: Look for engagement. That’s how you measure true relevance. Ask yourself: are the total number of engagements per post consistent?
Clicks: Got something to sell? Non-click platforms such as Instagram can still drive significant traffic – just make it part of the metric from the start.
Hashtags: Don’t expect the audience to use them, but they are a very handy reach measurement tool. With many social media monitoring software providers giving good data for the hashtag, you can get an idea of how many people in the desired audience are seeing the post.
Actions: Whatever it is you want to do, make sure there’s a metric attached to some kind of action. Even if you’re just looking for awareness, use engagements as a benchmark – look at their content and get a feel for average rates and measure against those.
Work with a good agency – Even if I do say so myself, it’s a necessity. Work with someone who can get the numbers from the content creators themselves, their analytics and their data – it will make an immeasurable difference to the accuracy of reporting and allow you peace of mind that this is a two-way relationship.
How to get on board. Find the fit for your brand by having an empathetic network of people to draw on, then seek out their audiences. Work WITH them. Don’t use influencers; work with your content creators. It’s an investment that pays handsomely. Content creators are the new publishers. The question is, are you ready to fully reap the benefits of what content creators can do for your brand?
An expanded version of this article appeared in the May 2017 issue of Gulf Marketing Review.